It’s with nostalgia and deep reflection that I always focus on ‘Leegaye Jotna Gambia Am na Bopam’, and our national anthem. Both tunes were apt and relevant in 1965 when nation building of a state (the Gambia) that many thought would not be viable was the main pre-occupation of the founding fathers and then People’s Progressive Party (PPP) administration. This was not an easy task as the country was at a crossroads between modernity and tradition. Socio-cultural values and norms, coupled with a weak financial base served as major obstacles to many of the developments that should have taken place. In my view, this situation was exacerbated even further by the drought that hit the Sahel countries including The Gambia from the mid 70’s to the 80’s. A military coup d’etat in 1994 put an end to the PPP regime. The head of the coupist became president since he took power in the 1994 military coup d’état and in 1996 ran for the presidency of the country. Since then, Presidential elections have been held every 5 years, with all national resources slanted towards entrenching the leadership of the APRC despite their claims of 1994 that Jawara had overstayed. I see no difference in a 30 year and an 18 year regime, which has no intention of letting go.
Today, February 18 2013, 48 years on, the slogan ‘Leegaye Jotna’ is more relevant than ever before. We have the herculean and most urgent task of first freeing the minds and thoughts of our youthful population, at least that of two generations of Gambians in particular those who were born after July 1994 and who have experienced and no none other than a Jammeh led Gambia.
First things first. Happy birthday Gambia. Happy birthday to everyone who was born on the 18th February but particularly to a very dear sister. A very special happy birthday to all Gambians who are 19 years today. We pray for and welcome to the world all babies who will be born today 18th February 2013. May you live long. May you have happy, prosperous and successful lives.
You may wonder why is it especially important to wish 19 year olds a special happy birthday? This is because you are a special breed of Gambians, the babies who were born on Gambia’s Independence Day and in the year that Jammeh took over power. This creates a rather interesting situation for you as the year that you were born marked a turning point in the country’s march to democracy. The Gambia became independent from the United Kingdom in 1965 and was governed by a democratically elected government under the leadership of President Jawara for 29 years.
1994 was the year of your birth and you have grown up to be the young people who are now playing a role in shaping Gambia’s history. Last year at the age of 18 you were eligible to vote. Many of you voted and your vote decided the fate of The Gambia. Why do I say so? Young people represent a critical mass of the Gambian electorate and the youth vote was an important deciding factor in which way the results went. I will not ask you how you voted. That would be intruding on your right to choose and vote for the candidate of your choice. I can however state with certainty that I know the factors that influenced your voting. The main one being that since you were born you have only heard one voice, seen the same face and listened to the same tune which tells you that Jammeh is the best and that he is the savior of The Gambia. Having no other point of comparison it is no wonder that you would arrive at the conclusion that without him the country cannot go ahead, that he is the answer to The Gambia’s prayers.
This is a misconception – the same misconception that Gambians held and perpetuated when Jawara was in power. When Jawara announced that he was stepping down as President as he was tired and wanted to spend some time with his family he was coerced into staying. He did so to his own detriment and that of the nation. No human being is indispensable. Whether Jawara or Jammeh or anyone else, we all have our entrances and exits and African leaders have to learn to exit honourably. Leopold Sedar Senghore and Nelson Mandela provide excellent examples of leaders who exited honourably. Jawara lost the opportunity to do so and it is likely that Jammeh will suffer a similar, if not worse fate.
The era of long term presidencies has passed. We live in a democratic age where the norm is for leaders to serve for a specified number of terms according to their constitution and then give way to someone else. In The Gambia there is no term of office and the current president intends to stay ad infinitum. This contravenes the rules of good governance and modern day democracies that expect leadership to be passed on from one person to another within a short and specified period. Alas this is not the case in The Gambia. The Constitution is silent on a term of office this means that the president can stay for as long as he likes as in The Gambia people are unable to make choices. Our choice is limited by lack of information on other potential leaders or political parties. The state media provides information on only one person; the posters on the streets carry the picture of only one man, the private and traditional media have been muzzled and cannot present a different scenario or divergent voices.
Next door in Senegal, when you were born 19 years ago, Abou Joof was president, when you were six, Abdoulaye Wade took over from Joof and last year, you all saw the most hotly contested election of Senegal were macky Sall eventually replaced Abdoulaye Wade. To crown it all, Mack Sall is limited by a Constitution with term limits, so by the time you graduate into full adult-hood, Senegal would have had a fourth president. My prayer for you is that you would at least experience a normal, democratic transition, in aprocess that would’ve allowed you to choose freely, independent of intimidation, the leader of your choice. For now, this is only a prayer and dream far from reality if all things remain equal between now and the next elections.
Amilcar Cabral, had said “an independent State in Africa will always be a liberation movement in power, or it will be nothing.” My question to you is do we have that liberation movement in place? Are we able to choose our leaders freely by having the opportunity to choose between competing parties in free and fair elections? I know what the answer is? You will say that elections have been held every five years since 1996 and that you were able to vote freely in the 2011 Presidential elections. Yes you decided on choosing your leader and the people who will represent you in the National Assembly over the next five years. You made your choice and we all have to live with choice.
You believed that it was your sacred duty to vote for Jammeh. I balk at this. The use, misuse and misinterpretation of the word sacred is of great concern to many people who saw the poster with the message “it is a sacred duty to vote for Jammeh.” The misuse and misinterpretation of the word could have arisen from the sponsor of the poster choosing to use a powerful word as a marketing tool which intuitively they knew would touch a chord in the heart of the target audience or would have higher than usual vibrations. They did not bother to check the original meanings or it was irrelevant as far as they were concerned. They wanted to put their message across and they succeeded in doing so. By implication it was a sacrilege to vote for someone else. Knowing the Gambian psyche the message had a strong impact on their decision as can be seen from the results of the elections.
After voting the government in supposedly free and fair elections the democratic processes should be in place. That is power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily. The difference is that Jammeh is a fixture and everyone else is temporary. Starting from the time when Jammeh came into power along with four others. – Sabally, Singhateh, Touray and Hydara he made sure that they all got pushed out and he stayed. The high turnover of ministers and senior civil servants make it difficult to catch up. Some positions are so temporary that they last for one hour only. If I asked some of you to name the ministers or permanent secretaries or directors of government institutions most probably you would not be able to do so as they change ever so often. There is no security of tenure. What does this tell you, that Jammeh is the only person who is able, good, clean and loves the country?
What an indictment on the people of The Gambia. At least when we went to school we could name the different ministers and senior government officials as they stayed in office long enough for people to know and identify them. Some of them were even described in the school texts. Now sackings, removals and replacements are done in such an ad hoc and undignified manner. Some ministers go on mission and are removed even before returning home. Can you imagine the embarrassment that these people feel? I am sure that there are many young people who do not know where their parents work as they are here today and gone tomorrow.
Another important aspect of our national history and heritage that we learned from school texts were names and actions of the leaders of opposition parties, founding fathers of The Gambia including the role and participation of the late IM Garba Jahumpa, JC Faye, Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, Sheriff S Sisay, Pierre Sarr Njie and influential trade unionists like EF Small in shaping the nature of our democratic dispensation. Some of you have just graduated from high school, can you refer me to any of your texts that thought you about the leaders of opposition groups, the role of civil society and trade unions?
Despite their run-ins with the Government then, I remember (an Aunt was living close by) peeping into a PDOIS rally at the then Odeon Cinema, Imam Omar Sowe. Halifa Sallah, Sidia Jatta and co were believed by many to be the party of the future. Back in the day, PDOIS had civic awareness programmes including the freedom/leeway to open schools and centres to serve the population. Even if the Government was uncomfortable with they were realistic enough to accept that such initiatives fitted into the global picture of nation building and as asuch, any attempt to stifle such will be denying very many Gambians their rights to be educated and informed. Can you imagine UDP who’s normally refused permits to hold public meetings granted a licence to open a school in today’s Gambia?
One of the things that I learnt as a child was to do my duty to God, my country and my parents. Now it is none of these. It is “Oga before God”. This is not only the slogan of the soldiers but also of young people. One young person told me that what Yaya Jammeh had done for him was more than his parents ever did for him. Therefore he had no choice but to be loyal to Jammeh as he could not repay him. What a travesty? I could not sleep for days, replaying this conversation each night for many nights. Can anyone compare the love, care, time, energy and resources that parents invest in their children to anything that any outsider can give including Yaya Jammeh. What happened to our human and spiritual values? I know that all religions enjoin on us to love and respect our parents. Everything is upside down- Jammeh the man before God and before our parents.
This is evident in your behavior. How many of you would walk from Half Die to Tobacco Road or from Jeshwang to Banjul or even from Jeshwang to Serekunda market if one of your parents was to send you on an errand without giving you transport fares? The number would be small. The excuse would be it is either too hot or too far. I cannot do it. Yet how many of you have walked in front of Jammeh’s motorcade from Brikama to Banjul or from Westfield to Banjul? Is this what you have been reduced to? People who demonstrate their patriotism by running or walking in front of a moving vehicle or wearing the colour green? The Gambia is the only country in the world where colours are stigmatized. A simple choice of what to wear is a difficult task for putting on yellow is politically incorrect behavior and you cannot be seen in public wearing yellow. When for love of the colour green you wear green, woe betide you, staunch supporters of the Jammeh administration associate you with themselves.
Words like patriotism, opposition and loyalty have now got new meanings in The Gambia. The dictionary meaning of patriot is “a person who vigorously supports his country and its way of life”. It does not define it as support for a person. Yet anyone who does not support Jammeh is denounced as unpatriotic. People with divergent views and voices are demonized and described as unpatriotic Gambians who are spoiling the image of the country. A country’s identity and image cannot be defined or controlled by a singular person, a group of people or one view. It is based on people’s perceptions and their living realities be it positive or negative experiences that they have. It may be rosy for some and it may be bad for others. How do you expect those with bad or negative experiences to keep quiet or say that it is good when it is not? If that is what makes one unpatriotic then I would rather be one.
The simplistic and stereotypical descriptions that have been made by people who are not within the same group have led to prejudice and discrimination. Many of you don’t know me in person. Yet I and very many my colleagues (journalists and activists) have been painted with a brush that makes us look bad. Let me present you with the following scenario. What would you have expected us to do if you were the young people who were gunned down in cold blood on that fateful day in April 2000? Would you have wanted us to speak out on your behalf and ask for justice or would you have expected us to keep mum, as is the tradition in Jammeh’s Gambia? If we took the former action we would have been described “as trouble makers who do not want peace for the country.” If we turned away and kept quiet your blood would have been crying out for justice as the blood of Omar Barrow (journalist & Red Cross volunteer), Reginald Carrol, Karamo Barrow, Lamin Bojang, Ousman Sabally, Sainey Nyabally, Ousman Sembene, Bakary Njie, Claesco Pierra, Momodou Lamin Njie, Ebrima Barry, Wuyea Foday Mansareh, Bamba Jobarteh, Momodou Lamin Chune, Abdoulie Sanyang, Babucarr Badjie are crying out for justice. The justice that they never got for an indemnity bill was passed by the National Assembly (leaders elected to defend and promote our rights and interests) giving indemnity to the perpetrators and the commanders.
You have been made to believe that the leaders of The Gambia Students Union were indisciplined trouble makers yet what they were doing was to fight for the rights of their colleagues. Omar Joof, Lamin Darboe and other young men and women were doing what was expected of them as student leaders, demanding for their rights to participate and be protected. In demanding for justice, student leaders were brutalized, arrested, detained and raped and in the face of reprisals some of them had to leave the country. In the aftermath of April 2000 the Ministry of Education developed a Code of Conduct that students and parents had to sign- signing away their right to assembly and their right to have a voice. The Code of Conduct was clearly a violation of the participation rights of young people. After this the Gambia Governmnet ensured that GAMSU was dismantled and put in place NAPSA, which instead of being diverse in nature serves to identify and promote students loyal to Jammeh. They are the ones who benefit from scholarships whilst very many deserving students who merit these are left behind. Why? Because they do not openly and vocally advocate for Jammeh.
The news media are significant cultural and political image makers and have been used effectively to make Gambians believe that there are people out there who are spoiling the image of the country. Is it we who are spoiling the image of the country or is it the country (it’s leadership) that has destroyed its own image and is then looking for someone to blame? Are we the ones that are arresting, abducting and killing innocent Gambians? Are we the ones that are dismissing and recycling people on a daily basis? Are we the ones that are throwing millions of Dalasis around daily with no accountability? Someone has to hold the leaders accountable and that is what we are advocating for. According to Jean Dominique: “you cannot kill truth; you cannot kill justice; you cannot kill what we are fighting for.” So we will persevere.
We have been told and made to believe that nothing happened in the 29 years of the PPP rule. I do not hold a brief for the PPP but I do know some of the things that I enjoyed before the military takeover. I had a good education; I was free to move around and to express myself without fear. We respected each other and lived amicably with each other. Our doors were always open, even at night for no thieves or security agents would come to invade our privacy, steal our things or even kill us. In short we had peace. I and many other Gambians could travel to Europe without a visa. There are many Gambians who now live in the Diaspora who went to Europe under this type of bilateral arrangement.
These are the intangible aspects of development. Today the supporters of the regime are quick to point to the infrastructural development. Development is multi-dimensional. It is not only about infrastructure. It also involves the personal securities of human beings. If the personal securities of young people like yourself were assured, why then is there a backway? Why are thousands of young Gambians facing the high seas and the deserts to risk their lives in search of greener pastures if everything was rosy in The Gambia? Why is there youth unemployment and under-employment? Why are you not free to criticize your leaders?
You, like Imam Baba Leigh, the father of other young people like yourselves are not free to have a divergent view, to question authority and to speak with knowledge on issues you understand as like him, you may anger Jammeh, your “oga before God” and end up disappearing, abducted, detained for months without charge and even killed.
Some of you may be members of Imam Baba Leigh’s congregation. How many of you, even if you are willing are able to ask for the whereabouts of your Imam without consequence? How many of you, even if you are willing to can sign a petition on his behalf demanding his immediate release without consequence? Other young ones like you are sons and daughters of Imams like Baba Leigh. Today it is his turn, how would you react if tomorrow it is the turn of your father?
Let me take this opportunity today to celebrate the heroism of Imam Baba Leigh. We also call the public attention to the fact that he and many others whom we do not know by name have ended up in detention, in the wells and chambers of Jammeh’s hit team, all for merely causing anger or discomfort to Jammeh.
When we bargained for Independence Forty eight years ago, we had leaders who stood up to the Colonialists and yet did not end up in dungeons and chambers. Today, we are detained, maimed, silenced and killed by our own leaders. Is this what you bargained for?
This is why I say Leegay Jotna is more relevant today. Today and tomorrow and for many tomorrow’s parents, teachers and social workers will have to help you and possibly other generations to interpret and decipher your meaningful role in our societies. Help you to understand how to stand up on your own and fight against repression. Help you to understand that it is the minimum role of a government to provide quality education and create an enabling environment for you to become useful adults. It is not something to be thankful for, it is the responsibility of the Government.
I leave you with this quote from Mahtma Ghandi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall — think of it, ALWAYS.
Ndey Tapha Sosseh
Coalition for Change – Gambia